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Don Tracy, the Chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, speaks during a rally for Illinois gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey at Daley Plaza, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2022. Tracy recently announced he will resign as party chairman after the RNC. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times/Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Illinois’ Trump delegates head to Milwaukee at a time of upheaval in the state Republican Party

Illinois Republicans prepare to celebrate Trump’s nomination as recent infighting has mired the state party.

Kent Gray has been a political junkie for most of his adult life.

The attorney from Leland Grove, an upscale Springfield suburb, maintains a home adorned with all sorts of Republican memorabilia. A portrait of Abraham Lincoln painted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower hangs among roughly 200 presidential Christmas cards from Republicans and Democrats. A small elephant statue sits near his front porch.

“A lot of people follow sports, a lot of people, you know, follow TV shows, a lot of people follow all kinds of different stuff,” Gray said. “My interest is politics.”

Gray was a John McCain delegate in 2008 and an alternate for Trump in 2016. He ran Trump’s Illinois and Missouri campaigns until the rally at the formerly-named UIC Pavilion that was shut down due to protests.

News reports at the time, citing unnamed sources, say he was sidelined from the campaign but Gray says he quit.

“I really had some reservations back in 2015,” Gray said. “Should I go work for a guy who is considered, you know, he was a Democrat. He gave money to the Democratic party … will he end up being a disappointment if he were to win? And in my opinion he ended up being, I think, probably the most effective conservative president we’ve had – certainly in my lifetime.”

Gray has been working in or around Republican politics since he was in college and worked for former President George W. Bush. But the atmosphere has shifted significantly since Trump’s entry into politics. Then-Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner didn’t even attend the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The event was marked by the differences between the Illinois GOP who supported Trump and those who wanted a more moderate candidate.

This year the Illinois delegation is all-in on Trump.

Voters elected 51 delegates during this year’s primary election – three from each of Illinois’ 17 congressional districts.

There are 64 total delegates from Illinois who will vote – the 51 who were elected, 3 delegates composed of the state party chairman and two national committee persons and 10 at-large delegates. There are also 51 alternates. The 10 at-large electors are hand selected by the state party.

The convention is happening at a time when the state party’s future direction is unclear.

After a period of intense infighting, Illinois GOP Chairman Don Tracy plans to resign at the conclusion of the RNC. In explaining his decision, he said it’s based in part because his fellow Republicans would rather fight each other than Democrats. The GOP State Central Committee is in discussions now about a replacement.

The party has been in the superminority in Springfield for years and hasn’t held a statewide office since Bruce Rauner was governor.

Steve Balich, an elected delegate from Will County, blames “establishment” Republicans, whom he accused of leaning further left and compromising too much to try winning elections. Balich said GOP members who consider themselves part of the “grassroots” are tired of it.

“We feel like we’ve been pushed to the edge of a cliff,” the Homer Township supervisor said. “There’s nothing to compromise anymore for us. So any kind of compromise for us becomes… well, we might as well just jump off the cliff.”Balich listed off a number of grievances like illegal immigration and perceived special rights for the LGBTQ community. His positions on those reflect the 2024 Republican party platform – which includes things like “no men in women’s sports” and “seal the border and stop the migrant invasion.”

Republicans have lost ground in Illinois in recent years as Democrats have successfully campaigned against Republican positions on issues like that. But the national platform also includes kitchen table issues like lowering taxes and making cities “safe, clean and beautiful again.” Balich thinks there’s plenty for the party to build on given strong cross-aisle agreements there.

“I haven’t had anybody say they like the idea of all these illegals coming in,” Balich said. “I haven’t had anybody say that they’re happy about all the spending that’s going on, because whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, (Democratic Illinois Gov.) JB Pritzker is spending money like water.”Balich is a die hard Trump supporter. After a New York jury convicted Trump of falsifying business records, he raised an upside down American flag in front of the Homer Township administration headquarters last month. The flag was returned to right-side up when people got angry.

In spite of Trump’s poor performance in past Illinois elections, Balich can’t wait to nominate him again this month. He was a Trump delegate in 2020 but the COVID-19 pandemic turned that convention into a largely online affair and this will be his first in person convention.

Neither Balich nor Kent Gray are making many predictions about what’s next for the state party or how the convention will go.

But Gray, sitting in his house among decades worth of GOP campaign memorabilia adorning the walls, is predicting a good time.

“We’ll have a lot of networking, a few cold beverages and probably some fun in Milwaukee… and a whole lot of hot air from politicians speaking for four days.”

NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify how Kent Gray left the 2016 Trump campaign and to reflect that the Illinois Republican Party released its list of delegates after WBEZ reported multiple requests for a full delegate list had been ignored.

Alex Degman is an Illinois statehouse reporter for WBEZ based in Springfield.

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